As we continue to sift through the litany of 20th-century composers and who will endure, the assessment of a particular creator's significance has become inevitably entangled with larger, meta-issues about tradition vs. originality, popularity vs. elitism, and so forth. The case of Gian Carlo Menotti
is practically a textbook example. Alternately championed and castigated for hewing to an "accessible," audience-friendly style--essentially a mix of Italian opera's lyricism with Hollywoodish gestures that hasn't always dated well--Menotti approaches his 10th decade having weathered many a storm of musical politics (he even ushered in the new millennium by personally directing a revival of what may be his masterpiece, The Consul
, at Washington Opera).
Yet to what extent his music will show any lasting resonance remains an open question, and perhaps the attempted answer is still too clouded by shadows of those very politics. At any rate, a less jaded view might be had with this captivating account of the composer's first success--written at the age of 25 and given a Metropolitan Opera debut in 1938 (in its English version, Amelia Goes to the Ball, making a bizarre double bill with Elektra). This one-act romp spoofing the classic love triangle displays a young composer not only of promise but on top of the world with all the exuberance of his freshly harnessed creativity. Already, Menotti shows himself an economical, effective one-man team as composer and librettist, and much of the music's charm springs from Menotti's theatrical instincts: he can instantly deflate a threatening Hunding-wannabe of a husband with a pompous bass drone and roll of timpani. And Menotti's signature melodic fertility emerges in full blush, even in parodic arias about fateful love.
This recording comes from the opera's La Scala premiere in 1954 (belated because of Menotti's opposition to Mussolini) and is a treasure in filling a gaping hole in the catalog. Nino Sanzogno gets the fleet invention of Menotti's buffa antics (the overture is full of bustle), and Margherita Carioso manages to be stylish and funny at the same time as the absurdly self-involved heroine, playing wonderfully off Rolando Panerai's outraged husband. The lover, Giacinto Prandelli, is registered too recessively in his great moment, but for the most part the sound has been nicely remastered. Rounding out the disc is about 10 minutes' worth of colorfully scored interludes from Menotti's "madrigal fable" ballet The Unicorn, the Gorgon, and the Manticore. --Thomas May